Marrakech is my last stop as I travel through Morocco.
What could be a better way as well, to end my Moroccan series, than a blog post on the city after which the whole country was once named.
From medieval times right until its independence, Morocco was known as the Kingdom of Marrakech. Till date, in both Persian and Urdu, the word for Morocco is Marrakech.
Whichever nickname you choose to refer to it by—Red City, the Ochre City, or the Daughter of the Desert—Marrakech brims with stories. But a little more than the usual. Some told and recounted again and again through guide books and travellers’ words. Some a little less obvious. Did you know, even the UNESCO-listed status for its vast medieval square, Djemaa el-Fna, is based on its oral traditions of story-telling. 😊
A tradition which goes back a thousand years. To 1070 AD to be exact.
Led by their warrior king Yusuf Ibn Tashfin and his cousin Abu Bakr Ibn Umar, a group of Berbers from the Sahara Desert had crossed the Atlas Mountains and were in search of a city where they could set up base and spread their kingdom from. They called themselves the Almoravids: “Those bound together in the cause of god”.
Their mission was simple. To change their fellow Berbers into devout practicing Muslims. A vision spearheaded by their kingdom’s founder Abdallah Ibn Yasin, a fiery, magnetic, determined, and idealistic preacher.
When the Almoravids came across the flat, dry, open stretch of land some 30-odd kilometres from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, they immediately saw its potential. Without much ado, they put up their tents on what was once a sprawling caravanserai, and called their new city Marrakech, meaning the “Land of God”.
In the following years they built mosques, palaces, and ramparts in their signature pink mud-brick architectural style which still typifies the city, and focussed on extending their realm. By 1106 AD all the lands from the Sahara to Spain and from the Atlantic Coast to Algeria belonged to the Almoravids, united politically and spiritually under one ruler and one empire.
But nothing is forever, and neither were the Almoravids and their rule. In 1147 AD, a second Berber kingdom conquered the Almoravids. They were the Almohads, Berbers from the Atlas Mountains this time, led by the scholar and religious reformer Muhammed Ibn Tumart. Their mission was the same. To change their fellow beings [including the Almohads] into devout practicing Muslims. According to the Almohads, the Almoravids were doing it all wrong.
For all their religious zeal, the Almohads were intellectually broadminded. They were also extremely competitive. Everything they did had to be grander than their predecessors. Whether it was their buildings or the empire. They rebuilt Marrakech, and extended their empire right up to Libya. Seville in Spain became their second capital.
But this too ended. The year was 1269 AD.
It took three hundred years for Marrakech to bloom again. This third time it was under the glitzy Saadians [1549 – 1659] who made it the base for their profitable sugar trade, and built colossal palaces and ethereal tombs to celebrate their wealth.
In the 17th Century, Marrakech took a spiritual turn when Moulay Ismail of Meknes built tombs for the seven saints of Marrakech across the city. Such was its acclaimed sanctity, European Christians were not allowed into Marrakech till the mid-19th Century and Moroccans still refer to Marrakech as the “city of the seven men”.
The last and current chapter in Marrakech’s story has seen it go back full circle, to its original role of a caravanserai. This is the chapter I stepped into on my travels.
Since Morocco’s independence, the Land of God founded by the Almoravids, and embellished by the Almohads and Saadians has been a hub for travellers of all types. Pop stars, high-end fashion models and designers, the rich and famous, backpackers, mass tourism weekenders and true-blue travellers. Everyone has found their own little “ideal” momentary escape in this poetic yet chaotic Red City by the Atlas Mountains.
[Note: Top image: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity Site Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s largest public square.]
Bab Agnaou is the most beautiful gate on the thousand-year-old city walls of Marrakech. Meaning “Gate of the Deaf and Mute” in Berber, it faces south and refers to the non-Berber, black people of Sub-Saharan Africa who could not hear [understand] or speak the Berber language. It was built in 1185 AD by the Almohad Sultan Yaqoub al-Mansour.
Nothing the Almoravids had done was “right” in the eyes of their successors, the Almohads.
One of the first Almoravid structures to be destroyed and rebuilt by the Almohads in the 12th Century was the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech’s most famous edifice. Koutoubia meaning “bookseller”, was named after the booksellers which then thronged the area. The pretext: the Almoravid Mosque was not aligned to Mecca to the exact decimal degree. If you walk around the mosque you will see the excavated columns of the earlier 11th Century one.
Bahia [Brilliance] Palace is the late-19th Century home of a black slave, Ba Ahmed, who rose the ranks to become the vizier of the Sultan and de facto ruler of Morocco. Around the central courtyard in the above picture are the quarters for his 24 concubines.
Forget the doors. Morocco turns you into a ceiling lover. Bahia Palace has some of Morocco’s most exquisitely carved and painted cedar-wood ceilings, meticulously crafted by hand. So, remember to look up!
“I am the incomparable Badia Palace, built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour [1578 – 1603]. Meant for festivities and official audiences with the sovereign, I hosted foreign ambassadors, distinguished visitors, wise men and poets. All were struck by the height and thickness of my walls, lavishness of my decor, size of my pools, and lushness of my vegetation … Even today, though they are worn and crumbling vestiges of their former selves, they still retain all of their majesty.”
~ Signage outside the Badia Palace.
[Note: The palace was inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Granada.]
To fully understand how wealthy the 16th Century Saadian dynasty rulers were, a visit to their royal tombs is necessary. Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour, builder of the Badia Palace, spared no expense when building his final resting place in 1603 AD. Imported Italian Carrara marble and muqarnas gilded in pure gold decorate the Chamber of the 12 Pillars where he lies interred with his favourite sons and advisors. The rest of his children and wives lie in the surrounding garden, under the watchful gaze of his mother’s tomb.
If you wondering how all this managed to remain intact, it is thanks to the same gentleman who stripped the Badia Palace of all its valuables and shipped them to Meknes. In the 17th Century, Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour’s successor Sultan Moulay Ismail walled up the Saadian Tombs so he could forget the Saadians ever existed. The tombs were finally revealed by aerial photography in 1917.
Nestled deep in the Old City is the Musée de Marrakech. An art museum, its collection comprises paintings, coins, and pottery. But the real attraction is not the artefacts but the museum building itself. It is sheer loveliness. Dar Menebhi Palace in its previous avatar, the 19th Century palace is a classic example of Moorish architecture replete with a central courtyard, fountains, and a hammam.
From Moroccan imperial exoticism to the world of French high-fashion, Marrakech has it all. In 1966, French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent made the city his home. He and his partner Pierre Bergé bought Jardin Majorelle, an electric-blue villa and its gardens, the latter filled with 300 species from five continents. The house had originally belonged to Moroccan landscape painter Jacques Majorelle. On their death, the couple donated their little oasis in the desert to the city to be used as a museum and public garden.
Not to miss is the Berber Museum inside. It contains one of the world’s most beautifully curated galleries—a collection of spectacular Berber jewellery in a mirrored, star-studded, midnight black octagonal chamber.
Dainty glass tea-sets, colourful potpourri or animal skins and herbs for black magic. Whatever you fancy! Oh, there are also carpets, ceramic plates, filigree lamps, and leather goodies. The covered winding by-lanes of Marrakech’s Medina are packed right up to the roof.
Reviews of Chez Lamine Hadj Mustapha, a street-side stall in Djemaa el-Fna tend to be mixed. Most swear by it. A few swear at it. [It is expensive.]
One of Marrakech’s most famous eateries, its speciality is whole lambs roasted in a hole in the ground over burning wood ash. The meat is then chopped and served. Its other speciality is the Tanjia, a beef dish traditionally cooked by men. Why? Coz the recipe is super simple, and the method even simpler. Just stuff meat and spices inside a clay jar and heat it.
Djemaa el-Fna, meaning “assembly of the dead”, is Marrakech’s most iconic and cacophonic collection of sights, sounds, and smells, all fused together into a mind-boggling human carnival. A rather odd name since no place could be more brashly alive than this square in the heart of Marrakech.
Street plays here have been recounting stories unabated since the past 1,000 years. Snake charmers sway under the stars. Henna tattoo artists grab passers-by’s hands in frenzy. One thousand years ago this square was the site of public executions. The carnival, a stark reminder, then and now, life had to be lived to the fullest, as long as one is alive. ❤
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13 posts. 3 weeks. A journey of a lifetime.
In case you have missed any of my Moroccan posts, here they all are. From the blue city of Chefchaouen to enigmatic Fes. From windswept Essaouira to the haunting dunes of the Sahara at Erg Chebbi. From hiking in the Todra Gorge to exploring Rabat and Casablanca.
All here. Just click on the links below to access the blog posts. Happy travels. 🙂
- Global travel shot: Uninterrupted storytelling in Djemaa el-Fna
- The story behind Chefchaouen, the blue pearl of the Rif Mountains
- 8 reasons why Hassan II Mosque tops the Casablanca travel bucket list
- 36 hours in Essaouira, where Europe meets Africa
- Photo essay: In search of the Sahara Desert
- Travel diaries: Hiking through the Todra Gorge
- The forgotten kasbahs and ksars of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains
- Discover ancient Roman Volubilis through a self-guided walk
- 8 hours in Casablanca
- Meknes: The story of a bloodthirsty sex-addict Sultan and his beloved imperial city
- The 5 untold treasures of Rabat, Morocco’s medieval and modern capital city
- Top 15 memorable things to do in Fes, Morocco’s cultural and spiritual capital
- Photo essay: Marrakech, stories told and untold